What was your best experience in the field covering this story?
Early September. Shumnaia River. The salmon run is tapering off. The two bears photographer Steve Winter and I have watched fish below our observation point aren't around. The forecast on the radio calls for another bad weather system approaching from the Kuril Islands. Although the cyclone is a day or two away, the gray, wet day weighs heavily on my eyelids. It feels gloomy, and I am ready to crawl into my sleeping bag.
Suddenly the two brother bears appear across the stream. They wander nonchalantly back and forth along the bank, occasionally peering into the water to search for salmon. Having no luck they cross the river to our side, but after a while the dark-chocolate bear decides to take a nap. His blond sibling dawdles for a bit before nestling next to him and gently resting his head on his brother's rump. They doze off just a dozen yards away from us. A red fox runs by. A seal head pops up in the surf at the river mouth. I am overwhelmed by the serenity of this scene. The gray, wet day is unexpectedly filled with peace and light. The gloom has lifted.
What was your worst experience in the field covering this story?
Mid-May. The Valley of Geysers. An amazing week of following bears around the steaming hot springs. Today Steve and I are waiting for a helicopter carrying the Wildlife Conservation Society biologists to their research camp. We've waited all day. It's overcast but the pass into the valley is clear. Finally the large machine lands, sinking to its belly into the snow. The door slides open and we are waved in, but there's hardly any room; the helicopter is filled to its three-ton capacity with field equipment and provisions. Somehow we squeeze inside. The chopper heaves its immense load up into the air and almost skis down the hill, skimming the tips of the pine brush. "We dropped off two field assistants, two dogs, and a Zodiak before we could climb up the pass!" yells researcher John Paczkowski. Incredulously, we listen over the roar of the straining engine. "Must pick them up on the way to the research camp!" Through the window I catch a glimpse of a narrow bridge below us, what turns out to be a rotor blade from a helicopter crash last year. That aircraft must've been as big as ours. Wonder if it vibrated as much?
What was your quirkiest experience in the field covering this story?
Early June. Cape Kozlova. We are looking for bears, hoping to see them feast on smelt, tiny fish that amass on these beaches to spawn. The weather's been rotten, but on the last morning before we chopper out we finally get a day when there's not a cloud in sight.
All of a sudden our guide, Volodia Mosolov, points at a bear hurrying along the slope above us. It tumbles down to the beach and dashes toward the melee of seagulls at the water's edge a few hundred yards away. "Smelt!" he declares. Grabbing our gear from the cabin, we excitedly follow the bear as it heads straight for the gulls and begins to nibble on something on the ground. But we don't see any fish. What's he after? When the bear finally leaves, we walk over to investigate. "Maggots?" Even Volodia sounds surprised. The bear's breakfast menu today did not read "smelt" but "piles of fly larvae washed out from the rotting kelp." Yum.